Improving Literacy Letter by Letter

Categories: Community Impact, Strauss Literacy Initiative,

The teacher has a card with two letters on it: “Aw.” She faces it towards a group of five students seated at a blue semicircular table.

“What other letter makes the ‘aw’ sound?” she asks the students, looking expectantly for their guesses.

“Au,” one student responds. And while that answer is also correct, as the teacher acknowledges, today, the students are looking for just one letter that makes that sound.

Another student throws their hand in the air. “The letter O,” they answer. But there’s a twist: the class is not going to use the ‘O’ today. Instead, the teacher refers back to the ‘Aw’ card she held up at the beginning of class. From this foundation, as a small group, they are able to build their word.

While it may feel almost intuitive, the Flamingo literacy small group instruction professional development is one of the research-based educational programs offered by the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning. The strategy works in five areas—reading for fluency, targeted assessment, explicit word instruction, reading for meaning and connecting reading and writing—to ensure students have a deeper understanding of the material and work through any reading difficulties early on in their academic career.

Sarasota County Schools literacy elementary program specialist Holly Chesnoff calls “word work” one of the “mainstays” of what these small literacy groups, built into an instructional strategy as part of the Strauss Literacy Initiative, are all about. This is where students alternate between spelling and reading out words and creating new ones from the same letters.

Implicit in this structure is also the expectation that teachers will continuously assess how students are progressing. That could mean listening to them read or asking them a phonics question. After all, this is the key to Flamingo small groups: it’s not just about putting the lesson in front of students. It’s about ensuring that they really understand what they’re learning and can use it on their own. The text, practice and focus of the program is constantly shifting as students’ reading levels change.

The small group learning and teaching techniques are not necessarily new. It’s the framework that is, says program head and literacy elementary program specialist Kari Johnson.

“If you were to have done guided reading before, usually the kids read and you said, ‘Hey, you saw these words. Let’s work on them,’” she said. “This is more anchored to the phonics — we are learning this skill and now we’re going to apply this skill.”

Four Sarasota County elementary schools—Lamarque, Brentwood, Wilkinson and Taylor Ranch—are piloting the Flamingo small groups framework. These schools were chosen based on three factors, Johnson said: interest, geographic diversity and reflecting both Title I and non-Title I schools. The program itself targets teachers in Kindergarten through second grades.

That’s an intentional choice to work with students who are learning foundational literacy skills, so they can enter third-grade as fluent readers.

That point is a pivotal moment in a student’s reading career, because it is a key determinant of future success. Studies show that not being a proficient reader by fourth-grade makes a student more likely to have trouble academically, drop out of school and, eventually, earn less as an adult. Yet Florida’s third-graders have continually struggled to make this metric. In 2022, only 53% of third-graders passed the state reading exam and about a quarter tested as proficient readers. In Sarasota, that number was 63 percent.

But the goal of the Strauss Literacy Initiative is not only increasing the literacy proficiency of all—it’s about identifying any literacy and developmental issues early, when there is still ample time to address them. Namesake donor Patricia Strauss wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until late in life, and she wanted to ensure that others did not have her same experience. There’s a science behind that logic: early identification means better outcomes. When reading challenges were discovered and addressed as early as first and second grade, one study showed, students “made gains” in foundational word reading skills “almost twice” that of children who began to work on any reading issues in third grade.

When Sarasota County literacy specialists were debating which literacy program to choose, it was the Lastinger Center that stood out.

"Our team was really committed to professional learning that is sustainable,” Chesnoff said. “This is a framework that is intended to build the capacity of teachers to be really great instructors of reading, especially foundational reading skills, and it can be utilized with resources from the core program that we have in our district.”

The predictable structure of the lesson also creates a routine for students, she says. Now, the students are immediately comfortable when word work begins—they know what to expect.

At the start of the school year, participating teachers received three days of formal training with Dr. Pullen, head of the Lastinger Center. It was then time to put everything into practice. To check their progress, a Lastinger team came to five school site visits this year to witness teachers in action and give them feedback. At the same time, Sarasota County’s own literacy specialists worked with teachers for real-time coaching as problems arose.

Although the Flamingo group framework is perhaps the most prominent facet of the group, Johnson explains that it actually has two other arms: a playbook program that works with teacher leaders and instructional facilitators on literacy instruction and dyslexia training for nine district program specialists.

It is clear that life-changing magic is already happening in the classroom. The hope is to lead to early identification of literacy issues before students are already years behind.

“Only if we have really good classroom instruction initially can we really determine whether a student’s deficits are a result of a reading disability or a result of a lack of good instruction,” Chesnoff said. “Because we want to be identifying these kids earlier, it’s that much more imperative that we are trying to lift the level of instruction happening as early as possible.”

The results are promising. In DeDe Snider’s second-grade class at Wilkinson Elementary, she has watched her class go from six reading below level, five at level and seven above to three below level, two on and 12 reading above.

“When you can see it in black-and-white,” Snider says, “it’s working.”

Teachers evaluate the reading level of their students through standard passage evaluations. Students read through various levels until they get to around a 90% rate of reading accuracy—that shows there’s need for improvement.

Erin Byrne, a first-grade teacher at Brentwood Elementary, watched one of her kids in the lowest reading group ascend to the highest. In fact, he had the highest learning gains of the entire first grade.

One of the strategy’s key differences is teaching students how to answer their own questions when they arise, according to Byrne.

“What I used to do was see that my kids were struggling and say, ‘Let’s read a book—we’ll be good,’” Byrne said. “But I wasn’t picking apart these words and showing them how to really analyze a tricky word.”

When Snider pulls out the cookie sheets on which she keeps her magnetic letters, she watches her students’ faces light up with anticipatory glee. They want to do the word work. They like arranging the letters to form a new word, almost like a game. That’s our favorite, they tell her.